A Matter of Faith
By Clinton Cameron
Art Jordan was only 14 when he heard the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) leader, Elijah Muhammad, speak. Muhammad’s thin voice had strength and confidence as he addressed the crowd of suburban, middle-class African-Americans. The small crowd of local residents was enough to fill the cottage-style home’s basement in Detroit. Most of the men wore suits. The women wore skirts just below the knee. As Jordan sat in the stairwell of the residence among the overflowing crowd, he was most attracted to the sincerity of Muhammad’s voice.
From Dream to Reality
Jordan began to understand the importance of a “liberal education” at age 17, when he served first in the Civil Air Patrol for a year, then joined the Air Force and finally the Navy – all before he was 21.
While in the service, Jordan managed to maneuver around the politics of racism and eventually landed the photography job he always desired. Getting there was a matter of faith and perseverance.
“Brothers – blacks had limited jobs: cooking, cleaning, etc. I had a Bible,” Jordan said. “I prayed. The Lord told me to ‘walk around [the naval ship] and see what you’d like to do.”
He recalls walking into a photography studio to ask for an apprenticeship and being rejected immediately. He accepted an apprenticeship at the dentist’s office next door. This move would eventually lead him to attend the U.S. Naval Dental School where he received a certificate as a dental technician in 1956. His prayers were finally answered when he landed a job that left him charge of the photography department.
“I didn’t have to answer to anybody. I had a 4 by 5 speed graphic camera: the press camera of those days. I had one of the first electronic flashes,” Jordan said.
His combined skills as a photographer and dental assistant led to many job opportunities. Jordan took pictures of operations for the Bethesda Naval Hospital, and became the official photographer of the post-graduates. He ran the movie projector for student training films. He also learned how to monitor a closed-circuit TV at the National Institute of Health.
“It was like lapse photography. I would periodically monitor the camera to check the acceleration of growth of cancer cells,” Jordan said.
Harassment and Opportunities
Jordan’s time in the service from 1955 to 1957 included a variety of experiences beyond photography and medical assistance. He worked the midnight shift as a fantail watchman on a six-fleet USS flagship and sat in an F86-D jet simulator. His experience and uniform did not make him immune to racism. While in Baltimore, he recalls entering bars in full uniform only to be denied service. He also remembers being harassed by police.
“In Baltimore I caught hell. I was in uniform. ‘I think you’re going for a ride,’ the police told me,” Jordan said, “but they let me go once I told them I had to be back to the base at a certain time.”
By 1957, the Navy offered Jordan a scholarship to Boston’s MIT. His heart was still set on attending photography school, so he denied their offer.
“I would have to sign up for six more years,” Jordan said.
His next move was to apply for the New York institute of Photography. When he was turned down there, he decided to set his sights elsewhere. By 1958, he moved to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles, Jail and the Nation
While in Los Angeles, a series of life-changing events occurred for Jordan. Though he is elusive concerning family, Jordan concedes he married twice. Neither marriage lasted, but he cites his first to Billie, a hairstylist in the entertainment industry, as the most significant. They were married when he was 21 and she was 28. The alliance resulted in Jordan being introduced to prominent political figures Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt’s brother, James Roosevelt, then Congressman Augustus Hawkins, and 1960s Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty.
During the early 1960s, he became involved in what he now affectionately refers to as the “underworld.” His understanding of understanding of photo images and access to official government seals eventually tempted him to counterfeit documents. He claims he wasn’t greedy and never accumulated a lot of money, but attracted enough attention to get caught. Jordan was arrested and convicted by a federal grand jury.
“Because I was ‘forthcoming’ with the judge and didn’t run a ring, the judge gave me a deal,” he said. “For the four counts, they had me serve [them] consecutively, which was about six months.”
After putting some distance between him and his legal issues, Jordan began to revisit his ideas of faith.
Black consciousness began to play an important role in his spirituality when an acquaintance named Thomas X re-acquainted him with the Nation of Islam by giving him a copy of Muhammad Speaks, the Nation’s official newspaper. The road leading to the Nation was a turbulent one, which included many spiritual practices along the way.
“I kinda’ tried ‘em all, Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist, even Sanctified,” Jordan said. “There was that Baha’i religion I was attracted to as well. It was a religion that came out of the East.”
Jordan continued to explore NOI’s teachings while in Los Angeles and received his “X” in the summer of 1969. Arlington Jordan became Arlington X.
Replacing his last name meant making a commitment to the organization. He soon became close to Raymond Sharrieff, a high-ranking officer in the Fruit of Islam, the NOI’s paramilitary wing.
“We were really tight because he was down to earth,” he said. “I’d go with the Fruit of Islam at 4:30 in the morning. We’d meet up and do calisthenics.”
Jordan officially joined the Nation four years before the assassination of Malcolm X. Concerning his death; Jordan is still hesitant to reminisce.
“I try not to have any feelings about that,” he said. “Most brothers just stayed away from any strong feelings about it.”
Today, Jordan sees himself as a non-active member of the Nation and views his membership as the finale to a search for spirituality.
“These interludes with different religions were part of my spiritual quest,” Jordan said. “Now I am a Buddhist. I still have all the beliefs I’ve been through to support my spiritual growth.”
The Jazz Venue
After the Watts Rebellion, Jordan and some of his Muslim brothers took advantage of the community’s lowered rent. They took a two-floor 6,000–square-foot space and turned it into an after-hours jazz venue. The venue was named International Juice and Jazz.
“Because we didn’t drink, we carried Hansen’s juice. We served that as a drink,” Jordan said. “We didn’t run into curfews because we didn’t serve alcohol.”
He recalled how he and his business partners hired the rhythm section from the Professional Musicians Local 47 union, and horn players would stop by just to play. Included among the guest musicians were jazz greats such as Roland Kirk, Horace Tapscott, Art Blakely, and Bobby Hutchinson.
“Bobby Hutchinson was hired as part of the rhythm section,” Jordan said. “When Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers played, my partner Charles and I, we cooked breakfast for them in the morning.”
The clubs cover charge was $3.50 and it opened at one in the morning. According to Jordan, it ran less than a year. After the venue was sublet to a group from the San Fernando Valley and a shooting occurred during their watch, the venue was forced to shut its doors forever.
“The guy we dealt with from the Valley, he never came back,” Jordan said. “We didn’t have a confrontation. He just never came back.”
Throughout the 1970s, Jordan continued his education, worked a series of jobs and was promoted to lieutenant in the NOI. Though he was one of the youngest in the group, his promotion afforded him the opportunity to work with a team of Muslims involved with helping Muhammad Ali launch a campaign to promote Mr. Champs soda. Ali was forced to give up his passport for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. He was also suspended from boxing in the U.S. and was in need of financial support.
When an announcement was made in the mid-1970s concerning the launch of the soda, Jordan photographed the event in Leimert Park, California.
“I had pictures of me, with him, but I never recovered them. I had to turn the film in to the lawyers,” Jordan said.
The soda eventually launched, but was not the success everyone anticipated. The team was dismantled and Ali refused to mention the business venture to Jordan again.
Importance of a Liberal Education
When he decided to go back to school in Los Angeles, Jordan took advantage of the GI Bill and attended Los Angeles City College.
“I went to LACC primarily because I wasn’t qualified academically to go to a four-year university,” he said. “I was taking anthropology and didn’t know what anthropology was.”
It took a while for him to adjust, but eventually he obtained a degree.
“I didn’t get a degree until ’78 when I got my legal assistant certificate as well as my A.A. degree,” Jordan said. “It helped me on my job, taking these courses while I was working for the law firm. My involvement in all cases was to know as much as the attorneys.”
The Spiritual Connection
At 76, Jordan continues to evolve. He now creates monotypes, an abstract medium of art. His work has been exhibited periodically in Los Angeles galleries since the 1990s. He sees his creations as an extension of his life experience and takes a spiritual approach to art and education.
“Education is more than just diplomas and degrees,” Jordan said. “It’s striving for an understanding of life.”
This article is reprinted with permission from Collegian Times Magazine.